Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review of 'Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen'

An unusual Hungarian film, made up entirely of clips (most of them very short) from other movies of widely varying ages and genres. There are occasional Hungarian subtitles but most of the clips are in their original languages.

The clips are assembled so as to tell a simple story, but with many different actors (in many different settings) playing the parts of the two main protagonists. It's a bit like a cross between 'Man With a Movie Camera' and 'Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid'. It's funny and enjoyable, though not really suitable for children - there's a lot of bloody violence at one point, and a prolonged sex-scenes sequence around the middle (who knew there were so many cunnilingus scenes in mainstream films?). I really liked it, though I could have done without the apparently spiritual scenes at the end, when the male character, who we have seen die, comes back for a joyful reunion. The songs are particularly well done, and it's fun to see how many films you can spot.

Watched on DVD in the middle floor of the Common House at Springhill.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Review of 'We are Many'

A nice but over-long documentary about the anti-war demonstrations of February 2003, dwelling on how big they were and how amazing it was that there was coordination so that multiple demonstrations were held across the world. Lots of talking heads from people that were there and helped to organise it, some nice footage of the demonstrations themselves, and a bit of analysis.

There was recognition that all this effort didn’t stop the war, but a sort of happy ending in that the strength of the movement made it too hard for Cameron and Obama to organise bombing of Syria in support of…who? Several talking heads were allowed to say that if only there had been more demonstrations – if we’d come back every week – then we would have stopped the war.

As with the demonstrations themselves, I ended up feeling flat and a bit despondent. I don’t really buy the Syria argument. I think there was a clear motivation for invading Iraq but there was a much weaker motivation for intervening in Syria, and that the West was relatively content with carrying out a weaker, less purposeful intervention. Also funny that Ed Miliband, who went out on a bit of a limb in opposing the bombing, gets no credit whatsoever in the film.

And I also think that in celebrating so much the size of the march, the film fails in explaining what marches are and aren’t for. Not just a failing of the film, of course, but of the entire non-Parliamentary movement. Going on marches is occasionally uplifting and gratifying (it’s nice to find out that there are lots of other people who feel the same as we do, and there is the sheer pleasure of being in a purposeful crowd, as there is for football supporters), but rarely effective. It bears saying that the most effective protests are those that trigger disproportionately violent crackdowns by the state, particularly when that becomes a PR or political disaster. And even those only lead to something when the political context means that the state cares how it’s perceived – the US during the Cold War was embarrassed by the way that southern police forces repressed Civil Rights marchers, for example, while China didn’t much care what anyone thought of what it did to the protesters in Tienanmen Square.


A well-planned peaceful demonstration that is arranged and co-ordinated in advance with the police, which causes minimal disruption to traffic and shopping, is not going to stop any wars. Complaining that politicians don’t pay any heed to them just sounds like whining. 

Friday, July 01, 2016

Review of 'The New Girlfriend'

An unusual French film about the relationship between a young French woman and the cross-dressing widower of her lifelong best friend. He reveals his secret to her, and they develop a friendship that starts with her taking him shopping and then deepens into something more.

An element that isn't explicit, but nevertheless felt very strong to me, is the extent to which the man's behaviour and desire is narcissistic. He isn't gay - he doesn't want to be a woman. He loves his deceased wife's friend as a woman, and wants to have heterosexual sex with her while dressed as a woman. I think he is really in love with himself as a woman - while she is in love with him as a woman, though a sort of acceptable man-woman, because she's not really gay either, though she's sort of thought about it. She has dreams about loving her dead friend (while she's asleep in her childhood bed in the family's country house), and she flirts with a young lesbian at the gay club to which she takes her cross-dressing friend.

Beautifully shot, with lots of lovely clothes and interiors, and nice stuff. The woman and her blank husband, who barely notices what's going on, are French yuppies. The dead woman, and her family, seem to be Catholic provincial haute bourgeoisie, though I  suspect there are other markers that would situate them more precisely to a French viewer.

It's based on a Ruth Rendell short story, which I must read.

Watched at the Landsdowne Film Club in Stroud - sparsely attended, with everyone giving each other odd looks when it finished.


Review of 'The Fundamentals of Caring'

Unusual quirky film about the relationship between a  young man with something like motor neurone disease (sorry, I missed the very beginning) and his slightly disengaged ex-writer carer. They go on a road trip, pick up waifs and strays along the way, and are sort of redeemed, but without mawkishness and with a lot of humour. Better than I was expecting - particularly great acting by Craig Roberts.

Another Netflix, smartphone and Chromecast viewing.

Review of 'Full Out'

Apparently true story about a girl gymnast who is injured and told she'll never compete again but pushes herself, with the help of a crew of hip-hop dancers, to get her strength and abilities back. Worthy but predictable and dull. Very little to say about it.

Watched on Netflix via smartphone and Chromecast.

Review of 'Jack of the Red Hearts'

A teenage girl living on the skids fakes an ID to get a job as a live-in carer for a family with an autistic little girl...and despite no training or credentials manages to develop enough rapport with the girl to help her. The teenage is doing it so she can be together with her orphaned sister, so she's trying to go straight, clean up her drug habit and put her life of minor criminality behind her.

It's a bit soppy and the anticipated (and telegraphed) disasters implied by leaving a vulnerable child in the sole car of...well, another vulnerable child...don't really materialize, even though the autistic girl wanders off, gets lost, climbs on roofs and so on. The ending is a bit fairy-tale. But its heart is in the right place - the social services aren't the bad guys, the family is more understanding than they ought to be, and I think it's quite a nuanced perspective on autism and what it means for parents to have an autistic child.

Watched on Netflix via smartphone and Chromecast.

Review of 'Sicko'

A Michael Moore documentary, relentlessly polemical but enjoyable and funny too. About how shit the US health care system is, with illustrations as to how much it makes ordinary people suffer and some explanation as to why, and how it got that way. Comparisons with the health care systems of other places (including the UK) that make them seem better than they are - but compared to what people experience in the US the NHS in Britain really does feel like a product of a socialist paradise, even after so many years of battering.

A funny ending in which the little group of victims that he's gathered are taken to Cuba - first to Guantanamo, in an effort to break in to the prison so that they can enjoy the free health care provided to the prisoners there, and then to Havana, where they are given free treatment and treated like heroes. It's a staged stunt, but it's still moving.

A thought - does this convince anyone not already on Moore's side? And if not, does that matter? Is it sufficient to produce polemics that only serve to keep people on our side reassured that we're not all mad, and that there really is a better way?

For the record, watched at a free showing in the Baptist Church in Stroud as part of a 'Stroud Against the Cuts' NHS weekend. There was a discussion afterwards but we didn't stay.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Review of Lady Susan

A fun, enjoyable piece of C18th chick-lit, with lots of nicely observed bitchiness; I'm not sure why this isn't part of the regular Jane Austen canon, because it's beautifully written. It took me about ten minutes to get used to the language. I particularly liked the way Austen manages to progress the story without any third person narrator. The epistolary novel may be very dated form, but it seems bang up to date, sharp and contemporary, here. I'm only sorry that she seems to have given up at the end, so that the denouement comes from the perspective of an omniscient third-party narrator. Actually, I'm also sorry that I couldn't work out what was going on with Lucy Manwairing at the end - I can tell that she is humiliated, but I'm not sure exactly how.

Which leads me to another observation - the characters in this seem like C18th versions of us, but they aren't. They are as foreign as women in ancient Athens or contemporary Saudi Arabia, an idle rich 'leisure class' who live off the labour of others and spend their lives managing the consolidation of property through marriages.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Review of 'Love and Friendship'

A bit of a meringue of a film - too sweet and light, not quite sour and sharp enough for the content. It's a movie treatment of a Jane Austen epistolary novel, Lady Susan, not published in the author's lifetime - and recently 'novelised' by the film's writer. The book is bitchily great, and the film isn't quite good enough. It's clear the cast of luvvies had a lot of fun making it, especially the dressing up and the hair and the sets - Kate Beckinsale alone seems to have three different hair artists working on her. Despite this, though, she's just not mean enough - the Lady Susan in the book is really rather darker.

I note in passing that the best friend character has been turned in to an American - she isn't in the book. Haven't we grown out of that yet?

It's watchable enough though, and there are quite a few laughs, and it did persuade me to read the book (free for kindle, unlike the re-novelisation), so not a complete loss.

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill, in one of the newly refitted screens - a bigger screen than previously, sofa seats with little tables on the arms for drinks and snacks. It's clear where the cinema business model is going.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Review of Operation Basalt

A well-written and gripping account of a little-known incident in WW2, this book also raises interesting questions about the nature of historical memory and the purpose of writing history.

In October 1942 with the Axis powers still in the ascendant the British launched a small-scale raid on the German-occupied island of Sark, one of the smallest of the Channel Islands. It was a tiny pinprick against the Nazis, yet it had significant consequences, not only of the people whose lives it touched but also for others far away – civilian and military prisoners who were caught up in the cycle of repression and counter-repression that it triggered, and all those Allied soldiers engaged in commando and partisan warfare, who were henceforth to be summarily executed if captured.

Eric Lee conveys the military and political context of the raid with a deft touch, setting out the background without labouring it. He also describes the raid itself with all the skills of a thriller writer, and it’s easy to imagine oneself there with the commandos, stumbling about in the dark and finding that things aren’t the way they look on maps or aerial photographs. I couldn’t help thinking how we have become used to our present surfeit of information – I can look up any of the unfamiliar terms in the book in a second (even when I’m on a train, as I did yesterday), or check out a Google map or street view of the places mentions. Then, the commandos and their leaders back in Britain had little idea what was going on in the islands – almost impossible to contemplate now.

On the other hand, the extent to which the raid unleashed a round of information warfare seems very modern. It’s hard to believe that the Nazis claimed to be the injured party in breaches of the ‘rules of war’, but they did.

One other thought struck me. This event was relatively recent, and well-defined. It took place within the context of military bureaucracies that tried to keep accurate and detailed records, and several of the participants left eye-witness accounts.

Yet it’s already impossible to dis-entangle some of the details – how many prisoners did the commandos take, and how many casualties were there? What happened to one of the civilians who played a key role? It’s to the author’s credit that he manages to solve some mysteries, shed some light on others, and admit where he is unable to do either.


This is a great and enjoyable book, and I look forward to reading more history by this author.

Review of The Portable Veblen

I picked this up because I rather like the odd economist-anthropologist Thorsten Veblen; I’d used terms like ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘leisure class’ loosely for ages until I actually read him, and found him to be brilliant and insightful, and rather relevant to our emerging post-capitalist civilisation.

But while the main protagonist of this novel is named for and keen on the original Veblen, it’s not really about him at all. Instead, it’s about relationships – between lovers, between parents and children, between siblings, old friends and everyone else. Oh, and trauma-induced brain damage, and medical experiments, and the regulation of medical trials, and the treatment of the mentally ill.

A few pages in I decided that this was not my sort of book at all, but I am so glad that I stayed. McKenzie is a very good writer, with a superb eye for details. There’s a good and well-structured plot for those that need that sort of thing (me), and sometimes the interplay between parents and children, and between siblings and parents, was so good it seemed that she’d been listening in on my sessions with my therapist.

So just read this. And then go read some Veblen too – I went and got myself a new copy of the Theory of the Leisure Class when I finished this book.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review of Florence Foster Jenkins

Much lighter than the recent French film ‘Marguerite’, which was a more fictionalised version of the same story but dwelled more on the tragic aspects of the story. The acting is more camp and over-done, though it’s interesting to see Hugh Grant actually acting. It still has some poignancy, especially in terms of the relationships that MFJ develops with the men around her, who come to care about her feelings enough to protect her from realising how dreadful she is. It also doesn’t shrink from the fact that she had syphilis, which is surely a first in a film designated as suitable for general viewing. And it manages to imply that her pianist is gay without over-doing it.

Also beautiful to look at, in the interiors, the lighting, the costumes, and even the long shots down New York avenues – how did they manage to get the city back to the 1940s? I noticed in the credits that some of it was shot in Liverpool and Glasgow – I wonder which scenes. And a lovely scene with 'Sing Sing Sing' on a gramophone at a party.


Watched at Woodford Odeon, with my mum, in a surprisingly full cinema for a Wednesday night.